Welcome everyone you're listening to the Talent Talk podcast by Robert Walters. Over the coming months we are going to be speaking with leaders across Robert Walters UK along with industry guests discussing their careers, advice and getting their quick take on trends in the market. My name is Lauren Freeman, I am Senior Consultant within our Birmingham office and I manage our Public Sector finance appointments across the Midlands region. Today we are doing our follow up podcast with Amrit Singh, who is sharing his recent experience for other clients and candidates alike. So just to recap, I don't know whether you might have listened previously, but Amrit is now Chief Operating Officer at nasen, a charitable organisation specialised in education for special needs children, and today we're going to be looking at driving change across the charitable sector, despite the Covid crisis, so thanks for joining us Amrit.
Thanks a lot Lauren; thank you for having me.
From our conversations previously Amrit, you have told me in depth about how you've tackled transformation, not only as a team and the roles within the team, but also new website development and process change across nasen over the last 18 months or so. Do you want to start with a quick overview of the changes you've been making and the impact that this has had on nasen as a whole.
We've actually been going through a lot of change over the last 18 months or so, dating back to pre-covid and I presented an update to our Board of Trustees a couple of weeks ago on this. The biggest change that we've done as an organisation is in terms of our scale and size. About 18 months ago we were an organisation with 20 staff, we are now an organisation with 38 staff and we're still growing so we've nearly doubled in size, in headcount.
That’s the biggest visible change but supporting all of that change we've done some strategic changes at the same time, the largest of which being we have changed our membership offer. Nasen is essentially a membership organisation, we work with education professionals across the education workforce in supporting their journey and their professional development in relation to making education equitable for all children, regardless of need or background.
Historically, nasen was a paid for membership organisation so to be a member of nasen you'd have to pay a membership fee and we made a strategic decision that actually we wanted to increase our reach, and we wanted to reach all teachers across the UK, not just those that were willing to pay a membership fee. So we took the decision to remove the paid for membership barrier and as of January this year, nasen launched free membership for all members. That was a really big change for the organisation for two reasons, one, there was a financial impact that we weren't going to get the membership income any longer, but actually even greater, and this talks to the impact our reach is widening and we're reaching more teachers than ever before. We now have 30,000 active members that have engaged with nasen over the last four months and interestingly it's also our 30 year anniversary so it's quite nice that we've got 30,000 members in our 30th year and we will be doing some social media activity around that in due course.
That's been the greatest change but we've also done a whole host of other changes as well internally. We did a big reflection exercise reviewing our organisational values, we engaged an external consultant who came in to support us in listening to all of our staff, in what their views were, why they came to work every day, and the values that they lived and breathed every day when they work for nasen. As an organisation and as a collective we came up with the seven organisational values which we now have on our website and we have plastered around the offices as well upon walls. It was a really inspiring session for me because it showed me that we have people who really care about what they do, and more importantly boiling it down to seven values was relatively straightforward, because most people had the same values and that for me, it was an inspirational process and the impact of that has been that actually is put front and centre why everybody comes to work every day. It helps us just stay grounded and anchor back to the core values that we all live and breathe every day.
Supporting those changes, we also did some structural changes in terms of staff and reporting lines, we did that relatively quickly through lockdown, obviously lockdown has been a huge challenge for everybody across the country and across the world. What we did at nasen was we took advantage of the fact that we weren't able to go out on the road and deliver our content direct to teachers and education professionals, we did a lot of it online. But whilst we were doing it online everybody was sat behind the desk so we took the decision that we were going to make structural changes relatively quickly, while everybody was sat behind the desk working in nasen rather than being out delivering. That was done relatively fast and again, I presented this to the board of trustees a couple of weeks ago and when you look at the amount of change that we've done structurally and organisationally in terms of people, in those last and it's actually been less than 12 months, we kicked that off probably around September time last year, it's been really quick. But again, the impact that all of the staff have taken to it extremely well they've all been really positive about it, and have understood the changes that we've made and the rationale behind those changes. The reason we've done that is to position nasen as an organisation that can now scale and continue to grow, but not have to think about organisational structures for many years from now.
So it's been a year of big change, we're starting to see the rewards now and one of the big things that we're seeing now is we were recently announced as part of the Department for International Trades, international education strategy and nasen has been called out as the key strategic partner with DIT in all exports of UK goods and services related to centre products and it’s a really exciting place to be in. The national agenda remains our core priority, but in being able to support the international market and making education inclusive for all makes me really proud to come to nasen every day, and the changes that we've been able to do in the last 18 months, mainly because of covid and we've been able to do it so quickly because of covid has meant the impact is starting to be felt now and is starting to feel really positive.
Those things you've mentioned, I think when we look at other businesses in comparison these sort of things can take months, if not years, doing them one at a time. What was the biggest challenge for you in doing this all in one go and why was it so important to get this done within the tight timeframe that you have?
It’s a great insight and I say this to the staff all relatively regularly, is the amount we have achieved in such a short period of time is brilliant. I remember in January this year, and actually before January saying to our chief executive, we're coming to a point where we're going to hit a perfect storm, because we have so many things coming to fruition, at the same time. And so, from the period of January this year to about April time, so in the first three months of this year it's been a really intense period, and the challenge was whilst everybody is working from home in covid and coming back after winter, those three months after winter, when we're in the office are difficult anyway, that is the hardest three months of the year, so from a well-being perspective there's a huge challenge in making sure and supporting our staff to ensure their well-being is front and central.
So the biggest challenge we had was trying to support our staff wellbeing whilst delivering some pretty big changes during the hardest three months of the year, and that was tough, it was very difficult and to be honest we have a phenomenal staff base, all of our people are brilliant and they love what they do and they're so bought into what they do, it's because of them that we've been able to make all of these changes in that time.
For me, it was that the biggest challenge was that well-being, now we're at a point where we're taking a breath and we're stopping to reflect and think about well-being and remember what is important. We are now coming up with a well-being charter for example within the organisation which is things that we all commit to doing and some of those things include, and I’m the worst culprit for this and I’m still struggling with this, but one of the things is we commit to not sending emails outside of working hours, and actually that's been a really big change and it's really positively impacted my well-being, my personal well-being as well as the teams and there's a whole host of other things that we've put in place to try and positively affect well-being.
So I guess then you've obviously seen those beneficial impacts to the team and by the sounds of it are starting to see that across the wider organisation as well already, but there was no doubt really and it's obviously very well publicised that the covid crisis caused a lot of uncertainty across every business really, however, there was a definite hit to the charitable market, which again has been well publicised, where there were struggles to obtain funding. I'm sure we've all seen a lot more of these charitable adverts petitioning for funding.
Why was it so important for you to drive ahead with this project at this time and also trying to manage the changes across the market as a whole?
Yeah, the charity sector as a whole, I absolutely agree there has been a big hit and that's down to disposable income levels reducing and we see it, I see it quite widely that organisations that do support charities and i'm talking about commercial organisations and individuals that support charities, they have less money now, they have less cash to be able to support those charities and so from a donor perspective that level of funding is reducing and it's a really difficult time in that sense. From nasen’s perspective we're a charity that is now looking at diversifying our income streams, we've not really been a charity that relies on donor funding in the past. In fact we don't have any funding from donors and that's because of where we are positioned as a charity. We support education professionals who then support children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, because we are one step removed from those children, companies and individuals find it difficult to understand that link, and so we don't really look for donor funding as much, or ever in the past.
Where our funding does come from, we have funding from government contracts, and we also have trading activities where we do look at getting paid for our services so, for example, when we were a paid for membership organisation, members would pay for their subscription every year. Now, since we scrapped that and you could say the timing of that was unfortunate because we scrapped it just as covid started, because that was a guaranteed income stream for us, which no longer exists so we have certainly lost that. But it was really important for us to press ahead with this project at this time because we wanted to increase our reach, and we wanted to get into as many schools across England, and actually when you reflect on where we are as a nation in terms of the education sector, it is very well publicised that children from disadvantaged backgrounds, including those children and young people have been more affected by covid, than those who come from more well off backgrounds, or children that don't have special education needs and disabilities.
So actually it is really important that, as a charity, that is all around making education inclusive for all and ensuring there is an equity of education, regardless of background and regardless of need it's more important than ever that we widen our reach, right now. So I won't sit here and claim to say that we had the foresight to know that this was going to happen, because I think that we were lucky to do that, or unlucky depending on which way you look at it, because actually as an organisation we're positioning ourselves to support those children and young people who are more disadvantaged, who are having a bigger impact on the back of covid. But actually at the same time we've removed this barrier to entry for everybody across the country in terms of education professionals, for them to access our resources to support them in how they can then support children and young people with SEND.
So in hindsight and in retrospect it's been a really important thing for us to have done that, and to have done it at the time that we did. I sit back and reflect and think that we've got it right in that sense, because the people will try to effect need it now more than ever.
I think again you've touched on a really good point there, obviously the education sector as a whole has been hugely impacted throughout this this covid transition period. Obviously you've done as much as you can to make sure that you're reaching as wider education base as possible, but at the same time, obviously, again we saw these stories in the news, such as Marcus Rashford obviously focusing on the food provisions for students in the lockdown period and the lockdown crisis. Do you think that maybe all this publicity around improving the education sector helped with your plight, as you were also going through these changes?
I'm not sure, and I think they're very different things, I think, Marcus Rashford was looking at the free school meals provision and getting more funding from the government, which was a fantastic thing, and he should be widely applauded for what he did, in supporting that scheme.
I think the education sector, it's in a really difficult phase right now, if you think about all the teachers who are working in schools and the pressure that they are under in trying to come up with the end of year grades, without going through a formal examination process, and the change that they are experiencing in a year, or at the end of the year, where children who spend the majority of that time not in school. So actually I think teachers in the workforce are really stretched and really pressured at the moment, and the more support that they can have, and that they get, the better. Actually I think it's almost more fundamental in terms of in terms of the challenges that they're facing at the moment, it's trying to do the minimum expectation for the children that they are caring for, that they are educating, and so they should be applauded widely and I have huge respect for anybody who's working in the education sector, whether being schools or colleges or nurseries, or wherever.
Where we sit and where nasen sits, we're here for the long term, we are here to work alongside education professionals, we're here to support them in making education inclusive for all and making sure there is an equity of education for all children, regardless of background and need. So I think the challenges that teachers are facing right now they're so specific to the year that we're in because of Covid. What it has done is highlighted the disparity between the children that get an excellent education and the children that are unfortunately and don't get the same level of education, and the need to make that equity of education for all. So actually think it's a longer term issue that can be supported and can be resolved over time. I don't think there's a magic bullet that we can do right now to fix everything, and I know that everybody that's working in the sector is doing the best that they can, but we are here to support, we're here to partner with those education professionals and try to do our best to support them in making education inclusive for all.
Perfect Amrit, obviously I think that explains really well, that throughout this period with both of the sectors that you're involved in, the education sector and the charity sector, that they've both hugely been impacted by this crisis and then throughout that internally within your organisation you've got your own transition. So in terms of your own staff, how did you demonstrate to them, role security and existing stability in their own roles to drive them forward on this as everything happened?
We were very fortunate throughout the Covid pandemic that we haven't had to furlough a single member of stuff and that was a really big thing for us. Because we changed our model in terms of the offer that we provide to the education workforce, rather than it being a face to face training or consultancy model, we very quickly moved to a webinar and online delivery of our training and that took a huge effort, a monumental effort from all staff to build the infrastructure to be able to support the online delivery, to create to the content that was going to be delivered online and a whole host of other things, and also, we were in the midst of creating a brand new website and going live with a new CRM.
So we had plenty of work, and so, for us, we were very fortunate to be able to tactually display to our staff, that the stability and role security is really, really important. We haven't had to furlough anybody, everybody was aware of the changes that we were going through and also fortunately we're an organisation that is going through a growth phase, so actually we hired more people during the pandemic, than we lost, I think I have mentioned we went from 20 heads in January 2022, to 38 by this point so we've increased headcount by 18 people. So we're fortunate to be going through that growth phase, whilst not having to furlough any members of staff because we had such as such a lot of work on, and change provides that opportunity and we talked about it last time a little bit, where we talked about actually through a pandemic, or through a crisis and there's a phrase ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’ because there's an opportunity to make the changes that you need to position yourselves to maximize your support and the impact that you can have in that crisis.
So we've been very fortunate to be able to actually get people in the right roles, one of the big things that we looked at was looking at our workforce and understanding their skills and because we were growing and we had more roles we've been able to move people into different roles and create roles to match their skill set. So now we have added role security in the sense that people are in roles that suit their skills and that they enjoy. I spent a lot of time listening to my staff and hearing what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go in their career, so we've been able to position them in the in the organisation as such, to support that. Now we're in a stage and I said this to all staff a couple of weeks ago, we're now at a point where change is over as an organization, we are finished and we have come through our change cycle and I talked about the emotional cycle of change with staff, and we are now in the phase of optimism, we can see where we are going, we know what we're looking at, and we also are very comfortable that any major organizational change is now done we’re into business as usual, and we want to get into the regular mode of bau, business as usual and so we've been fortunate because of where we have been in the journey we've been on that we've not had to furlough any staff and the role security and stability, I feel, is now stronger than ever.
That's perfect, it sounds like these staff changes were real key to the success that you've seen. Obviously in addition to the changes internally, what have these changes meant for your client base, you've mentioned the implementation of the new membership process and that subscription wise, you have seen an increase. Did you want to tell us a little bit about what you attribute this immediate success to?
So as I mentioned before our offer has gone from a paid for membership to a free membership for all, and as a consequence we've seen a big uptake in engagement and people coming on and having a look and so we've also as I mentioned earlier, we've lost a fair amount of income from this paid for membership that no longer exists. We created a suite of paid for products for our members, which are paid for services that sit behind a paywall because ultimately we're a charity, we need to pay people to be able to do the things that we do, and to support the sector as we do. And so we've created this suite of products which we have a webinar pass, so as I mentioned earlier, all of our training content is delivered online and through digital by default and we provide access to recordings of all of our webinars as well. So if you buy a webinar pass from our website, you have access to all of the recordings and access to all future events for a year. That’s been a great product and it's a really good price £350 a year for 70 webinars, which equates to £5 a webinar which is really good value. So we've seen good uptake on that and it provides the freedom and the flexibility to our members to access that training at a time that suits them, rather than having to make time to come and visit a face to face session. So that's been a really interesting product that is going, really, really well.
We've got another couple of products, one is the SENCO support service, where we have created a support line for SENCO which are special educational needs coordinators that are in schools. They can access this phone line they can ring in and they can ask any question and they get that support, it doesn't provide legal advice, but it provides day to day support in how to do the SENCO’s role or how to manage certain situations. We also have a final publication subscription, so we do a lot of research projects and we do a lot of research, and we instruct and we engage a lot of people to do some research on our behalf and we publish our research. We publish it on three different journals, and we provide access to those journals as a subscription and so, if you buy the subscription £85 for that you get access to all of the journals that we publish in a year, and access to journals that are sitting in the space as well and that's giving a lot of resource and a lot of information to members.
There is also a whole host of resources that are free, we're doing a government contract with the Department of Education at the moment where all the content that we create on the back of that contract is hosted for free on our SEND gateway website, so any professional or anybody can access that resource specific to anything that they're looking for around special educational needs and disabilities. You can search for it so, for example, if somebody wants to read up a bit about dyslexia, you can go through our gateway website search for dyslexia, and it will come up with all the resources around dyslexia, that you can view for free. So actually it's made our members and more, it's made our resources available much wider and our new website, it's much more intuitive it's much easier to search for things, so people can come in and they can see those things, and what we're able to do now on the back of our new website and CRM is we're able to see what our members and others looking for, so we now are starting to get some rich data which is helping us really understand what the sector is asking for and what that will enable us to do, it will enable us, as an organisation to provide even more value to our members as time goes on.
It almost sounds like you you've managed to create this on demand suite for your users, which i'm sure is much more adaptive and forward thinking to previous processes have been. I know you touched on again at the start there about and funding declining slightly, so obviously as a rule you've managed to continue with this transformation process. How did you manage to do that, with the loss of funding in the first instance? but what do you think the long term financial ramifications will be now that you have made these changes?
We were able to invest in in these changes, because of the success of the organisation over a number of years leading up to this this point. So this year and we've just finalised our end of year position for 2019 2020. In that year we made a loss, and we are budgeting to make a loss again this year. That is a conscious decision because what we're looking to do, we're looking to reinvest our reserves into the organisation to make sure that we can support our member base as we've talked about a bit more. I really like your phrase about it being an on demand suite for our users, because that's essentially what it is and so we've been able to create that because of the investment that we've made, but in making that investment we know we've made a loss this year and we're planning to make a loss again next year because the investment continues. That is a conscious decision, we can't keep making losses like you know, like you said, the financial ramifications and understanding those long term ramifications is really important.
So what we're doing as an organisation we're looking at diversifying our income streams, and we're now really looking commercially at how do our products land, what works what doesn't work, clearly we're still a charity, and so the vast majority of our work is charitable and the reason we have to look at it commercially is so we can make sure we're not we're not making losses over the long term, to make sure we can continue to support the sector long into the future. Nasen has been around for 30 years and i'd love nasen to be around for another 330 years at least, that would be amazing. But in order to do that, we have to make sure our financial sustainability is there. I talked a bit about diversifying our income streams, one of the things that we're looking at the moment is our international strategy, so we're a national organisation, yet there is an opportunity to work in the international space. We have recently been announced with the Department for International Trade, in the international education strategy as their key strategic partner in all exports of UK goods and services related to special educational needs and disabilities.
The idea for this is that will support the activity that we do internationally will support our ability to continue our charitable activities nationally. As well as looking at other areas and hearing what our members need and what our members want. Who knows what the future holds, we may start reaching out to large corporates and trying to get into partnership with them to support the education sector, because this is a really important part of our future. Special educational needs is huge, there's about 15% of all children in schools and colleges at the moment, who have a special educational need and that equates to about 1.5 million right now that one day in the future will be becoming part of the workforce. So I think there's work to do to support the workforce in the longer term, in terms of supporting those children that go through the education sector and are ready to support organizations. There was a great article in the Guardian a few weeks ago about the two spies at GCHQ. It wasn't the two spies actually it was about, I think it's four times as many the national average of GCHQ apprentices who went on to finally get jobs in GCHQ’s data team had some form of learning difference and that goes to show actually neurodiversity can actually have a very positive impact on organizations in the future. Because with neurodiversity, particularly when it comes to data and the analysis of data, there are strengths, the neuro diverse individuals have way over neurotypical individuals. So it's about supporting organizations, as well as the education workforce, so we can make sure that when children are going through the education system we're preparing them for adulthood, and they are ready to go into the workforce when they come of age.
Perfect, I think again Amrit, you can tell that just as you're talking about this, how passionate you are and how you've come in with these innovative ideas and sort of driven to make these changes for the long term good, so we've seen a big change here. What is the appetite now for future growth? and how do you see that being achieved in I guess what timescales and, as you do grow, how are you going to make sure that stays to the values that you are clearly quite passionate about articulating right now?
We have clear strategic goals for the next five years. Our aim is to get into at least 50% of schools in England, by the end of 2023 and 60% of schools by 2025. Our absolute aim is to have membership across 100% of schools across England in the UK, that is absolutely our long term appetite. When we talk about future growth it's not in terms of growth of the organization, its growth in our membership and growth in an awareness of making education inclusive for all, that's the key thing.
How we ensure that it stays close to our values and I’ll answer to questions at the same time here, it's the thing that we remind ourselves every day when we come to work, it's why are we here, why we come to work every day and it's a question I asked my staff, it's question my staff asked each other, it’s a question everybody asks one another, to remind ourselves of why are we doing what we're doing, what's the heart and soul behind what we do and that comes out through our values exercise that we've just done, and it always points back to that statement that our vision which is for an education system which provides an equitable education for all children, regardless of background or learning need.
The way we do that is we have to grow, because that message is so important and it needs to be heard louder and louder. I have talked about our reach into schools, that's our target, we're looking to develop our international profile, because we want to support this message globally, not just in the UK and we want to deliver more within the sector and really support the workforce.
We have our workforce development targets, we aim to have 10,000 professionals within the education workforce actively engage with nasen resources and we can now measure that through the data that we have, and we're able to see which resources are really useful over others and what does the sector need and what are they asking for. We will be reaching out to our members as well to get their feedback in terms of where do they need to support, and where do we need to go.
It's really obvious again there Amrit that these changes, they're already starting to take effect but you're already thinking about what's next and how best you’re going to be able to help the sector as a whole. Certainly from your perspective, a lot of change, it sounds like that there may be a bit more in the future, in a growth capacity. A lot of businesses really throughout this period have maybe been putting off making those key business decisions changes or just actually come to a bit of a standstill in the current market climate. Ao what advice would you give to anyone who is maybe in that situation and delayed change or transformation because of what's been happening?
I think it really depends on the organisation situation, what I would say is don't stand still, I think standing still when things are moving at the pace that they are, it will make things harder and is delaying the inevitable. I would say, look internally and understand what can you do, what can be worked on. As I mentioned, we progressed our change quickly and got through it very quickly, so as things are returning back to normal, we are in the right space, in the right framework within the organisation to be able to press ahead. Whereas if you're standing still you're losing that time and the opportunity to make those changes that you need to do as an organisation.
One of the big things that has really worked for us as the world is now returning back to normal, and i'm going to plug a couple of our events right now, we're doing nasen live which is an exhibition event where we have a room at the vox in Birmingham, and it's like a big seminar where a lot of education professionals come to listen to speakers, listen to some events, network with one another and see some exhibitions. That is now going ahead this year, we had to cancel it last year, and so we're really pleased that we're going ahead with it this year. But this year is going to be bigger than ever, because we're working alongside TES, so TES is a huge organisation that supports the teaching workforce, and we're working in partnership with them to bring the SEND community back together again and so we're really pressing ahead on that. We've also got our nasen awards ceremony later this year, which again was cancelled last year and that's where we celebrate the successes of all of those individuals within the special educational needs and education workforce.
The reason I talk about those now is because now it feels like we're returning back to normal and returning back to the levels of normality that we had before. But now that we've gone through the change that we've gone through we're coming back to a stronger than ever. We're coming back to in a position of stability and you talked about it earlier and roll security and stability, actually nasen as an organisation is now much more stable and secure as an organisation and what we're trying to do is support the sector and the educational professionals. If you look at our journey and the change that we've been on we didn't stand still and we tried to maximize that time that we had, and we looked internally, because there wasn't a lot to do externally, we couldn't do too much delivery and supporting of the workforce, while they're working really hard to educate children from home and online through zoom calls, which are not easy. So we've done that, and we didn't stand still and now we're coming out of it and going back into normal, we're ready and we're much more secure and stable as an organisation to support the workforce long long long into the future.
Amrit, I just want to say thank you again for joining us for this second podcast. Some of the topics that you've covered today, have obviously been very interesting and gives us a really good insight into the charity, not for profit sector, especially the education sector, and also business growth, transformation and change. So some really key topics that I think a lot of businesses will be looking at at the moment and so again, thanks for your advice your tips and the information that you've given. You’ve been listening to the Talent Talks podcast by Robert Walters, with me Lauren Freeman, thank you for listening and best of luck.
It's been a real pleasure, thank you for having me Lauren.